Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Stop Telling Young People to "Follow Your Dream"

Being an educator, I have sat through my fair share of graduation speeches and presentations.  The phrase I have heard the most often in them is one that sticks on my tongue like a burnt piece of popcorn "follow your dream."  I heard it plenty growing up myself, and I kept listening to it despite what the pursuit of my dream was costing me.  That phrase is one of the great propaganda slogans of American society, akin to the maxims taught to the little babies in A Brave New World.  It's a slogan, not a cliche, because it makes an implicit statement about American life: if you pursue your dream and put in enough work, you will eventually achieve it.

I have a crown on one of my molars, and I occasionally feel it with my tongue and get wistful.  That molar is a my constant reminder of what it really means to follow your dream.  I cracked that molar at the end of my time in grad school, but did not have the money to get it fixed.  When I left grad school for a job on the contingent track I still didn't have dental insurance, and had to opt for a temporary fix that lasted me until I was out of academia and had a dental plan that actually did its job.  (I used to get blinding toothaches when I was in the latter days of my tenure-track gig, but knew that my crummy dental plan wouldn't really cover anything.)

The dream meant more to me than my health or financial security back then.  I remember lean end of the month weeks in grad school where I feared spending any money lest I bring on an overdraft.  I remember driving cars that were practically falling apart, including one whose automatic seatbelt was busted, which wasn't exactly safe.  I remember the 80 hour weeks and sleepless nights.

I followed that dream to a contingent position in Michigan, then to a tenure-track gig in the pine forests of east Texas.  It meant being separated from my wife and living in place where I felt like a lonely outcast, lost and unable to find my way home.  I endured a toxic work environment and bullying that nearly broke my spirit.  By the time I left academia for a private school gig in New York my confidence was so shattered that I wondered if I was capable of trying anything without failing at it.  I had put so much of myself into my identity as a professor that I felt like I had been expelled into exile.

Luckily, I managed to land in a great job.  Unfortunately, the emotional investment I had made in my old career did not immediately go away.  For about a year and a half I mourned the death of my academic dream, as if I was mourning the death of a loved one.  Or more accurately, mourning the death of part of my soul.  I am only finally getting over it, but occasionally a memory of my past life will trigger a stinging emotional pain.

At least I met a lot of great people along the way and cultivated my mind in the bargain.  It wasn't a total loss, but I now know that I can never tell a young person to "follow your dream" and leave it at that.  It's pretty easy to follow that dream right into the abyss.


Brian I said...

As I read this, my tongue can feel the gaping hole in my mouth where a cracked molar was extracted four weeks ago yesterday. I wonder if seven years on the academic job market and six years as a contingent had anything to do with that?

Tim Lacy said...

I'm with you totally, WHB, on NOT telling young folks to follow their dreams. I've not gone the cynical "be realistic" route, which has its own failures and impossibilities. But I think balancing both our dreams and the realities of the world is super important. Be clear eyed. - TL